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Fifty Decades Past

A 1960s time capsule of sorts from December 1969 offers an interesting perspective today.

by Vince Farinaccio

This past decade has celebrated its share of 50th anniversaries of events that helped shape a half-century of culture, politics and scientific accomplishments. So, it seems fitting to take a look at how the 1960s was viewed as that decade was about to relinquish its reign in time.

The December 30, 1969 issue of Look magazine, a publication dominated by photography and short on text, devoted its content to an evaluation of the decade, and an examination of its features forms an interesting time capsule when viewed from the perspective of 2019.

The expected people, places and events are all there in the 68 pages. The Kennedys, Richard Nixon, the Beatles, Che Guevara, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol and others share space with miniskirts, the Miracle Mets, the U.S. moon landing, Vietnam, nuclear concerns and the youth culture. “Our Unbelievable Decade” is how one headline sums up the era.

Correspondence from George McGovern, who would soon oppose Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, appears on the letters page applauding an earlier article in the publication about the need to exit Vietnam. Eugene McCarthy, whose bid for the Democratic nomination in the 1968 presidential election fell short, provides an article about how the younger generation of the 1960s helped to distinguish the period from previous decades.

But the writing contained in the issue is, at times, a reminder of how an era could be insensitive, finding amusement at the expense of others. A quiz to test readers’ knowledge of the decade states, “The most popular female vocalist to come along was a homely miss who dynamically belted out show-stoppers in more traditional style.” The praise for the talent of this singer, which the magazine identifies as Barbra Streisand, doesn’t seem to make up for the comment about her appearance. In another of the publication’s articles, the writer reports seeing a “chubby boy in Taipei who looked so like the gigantic Buddha mask nearby that we had to laugh.”

One of the longest and most telling pieces in the issue is an article on the top books of the decade. It features a list of short story collections and novels, only one of which earned a consistent spot on high school and college reading lists during the remainder of the century and beyond. That book, Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s 1961 jigsaw puzzle narrative about the horrors and absurdities of war, was adapted as a feature film before the conclusion of the 1960s and remains the author’s only book to have a regular presence in Barnes and Noble bookstores today.

The inclusion of Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, about the title character’s identity quest, and Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer are worthy choices for Look’s Top 10. Both authors’ renown may have ebbed over the intervening years, yet both Herzog and The Fixer remain acknowledged achievements. And while never a popular book among readers, John Barth’s postmodernist novel The Sot-Weed Factor still manages to earn attention from critics as evidenced by its inclusion on Time magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

But other titles like Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, which online sources report received mixed reviews upon its release, and William H. Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country seem to have fallen short in the test of time. And Look’s omission of a work like Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five, a perennial on the list of high school reading lists, becomes a glaring oversight.

Another interesting item in this Look issue is a letter by a female reader addressing an earlier article about a Debbie Reynolds TV sitcom of the time. Offended by what she refers to as the “[I Love] Lucy formula,” which pits a housewife against her husband’s superiority in a futile effort to succeed, the writer explains that “women are becoming aware of their identities and of their need for self-respect and they don’t want anymore female clowns misusing their femininity to shout, ‘Look how stupid Women are.’”

It would be a few more years before television would seriously address such a concern, but the point had been duly noted as Look wrapped up the decade.

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